A Closer Look into CrossFit

Posted: 24th April 2012 by Jon in Exercise and Fitness

We will now take a closer look into CrossFit. By now, almost everyone has heard of CrossFit, and may even think of it as a type of phenomenon. CrossFit is a relatively new fitness fad that has gained popularity in recent years, and has had a slur of many enthusiastic trainees. To fully comprehend CrossFit as an exercise program, you must take a closer look of what it has to offer, and even recognize the disadvantages, risks and potential dangers of this training.

The fundamental nature of CrossFit is based off traditional circuit training. Some have even described CrossFit as a glorified well -marketed version of circuit training, or simply a higher level of general physical preparedness, or GPP. Circuit training was developed in the early 1950’s and refers to a number of carefully selected exercises arranged consecutively. Originally, 10 to 12 stations comprised the circuit. Each person moves from one station to the next with little (i.e. 15 to 30 seconds) or no rest, performing 15- to 45-second work-bouts of high repetitions at each station. The stations can be either be a strength exercise or cardiovascular exercise. The method attempts to improve cardiorespiratory endurance as well. Completing one station and moving to the next station is accomplished by completing a certain number of repetitions, or even rep ranges in a given amount of time. Comparably, this type of training uses a lower load, and decreased rest interval than traditional resistance training that is uses higher loads and a higher %1RM and longer rest periods. This particular circuit based-training is nothing new, as many other fitness concepts over the years have adapted the same thing such as Curves, Gladiator/Celebrity style training (i.e. 300-workout), and many more.

Circuit Training in and of itself does have many benefits, as briefly stated above. In addition, it also trains specific energy systems such as the phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems. Furthermore, this type of training also yields greater energy expenditure than traditional types of strength training, which is why it’s so appealing for fat loss. Although different methods are used, the more current and mainstream, and effective integrated fat loss systems are referred to as ‘metabolic training’, or ‘metabolic acceleration training’.

However, Circuit training does have its downfalls. It does not provide good specificity of training. For example, if you want to squat more weight, then you must train that specific mode of exercise. You should not expect your squat strength or technique to increase by doing body weight squats, or wall sits. Essentially, you must train for those specific movement patterns. Therefore, it has a non-specific approach, as it will not give you the same return on investment as traditional resistance training simply because of the low loads used and reduced volume.

The Attraction of CrossFit

Crossfit typically attracts those who are annoyed, disappointed or unhappy with the current exercise program. Those that begin CrossFit may require more high intensity efforts with their lifestyle or job, or those who are looking to get “fit” who have engaged in little exercise training throughout their life, or even just expend more calories in short amount of time, or perhaps a bit of all of them. Individuals who are not training for specific strength, a specific sport or competition, and desire just broad general fitness may benefit from Crossfit. The CrossFit enthusiasts will often claim that other programs don’t hold a candle and don’t even come close to match the intensity of their workouts. However, it is likely this is correct, as circuit training does provide high intensity effort bouts that most traditional weight training and cardio programs just don’t match. Therefore, it is apparent that CrossFit attracts a variety of groups of individuals including tactical groups (i.e. law enforcement, and military) and emergency services (i.e. firefighters) that require this type of fitness needed for their specific job.

The Downside

The major pitfalls of CrossFit are the workouts of the day, the training intensity, and safety with respect to form and technique of exercises, including fatigue. Crossfit workouts are designed using the Workout of the Day, or WoD. These workouts are simply a random list of a variety of exercises, which is completed for time, or by executing a certain numbers of repetitions. A prime example of this random programing is the “Murph”, which consists of a 1-mile run in a weighted vest, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 body-weight squats. This is then followed up by another 1-mile run. To make matters worse, this is done as fast as possible. The major problem with this type of method is that it is not specific to an individuals needs, and there is little analysis. In addition, these programs are usually done with excessive volume, and is created and developed as a “one-size fits all” approach. The Crossfit “trainers” argue that the workouts can be accommodating” for those who are deconditioned. However, it must be emphasized that for any type of group exercise, there will always be those who find it easy, and others who find it difficult. These non-specific and random acts of programming increase the risk of overtraining and blatantly dismiss the core values of program design. The use of poor programming will almost always produce incomplete results, and intensity will never full replace a planned, systematic, and strategic program. Simply, the WoD’s (workout of the day) and lack of systematic programming infringe upon the essential elements program design.

Another pitfall of Crossfit is the intensity. Although intensity is important, applauding novice trainees to train at intensities beyond their ability can have serious implications, and creates cause for concern. Repetitive stress, and injuries can and DO occur. For example, Exercise Rhabdomyolysis can occur in these situations, as there have been lawsuits involving CrossFit and the methods of exercise. Interestingly, Crossfit actually has an unofficial mascot (displayed on T-shirts) of a dying clown known as “Uncle Rhabdo”. This is indicative of Exercise Rhabdomyolysis, as this calls into serious question the lack of concern and disregard for providing quality programming and ensuring a safe training environment. If this type of belief and demeanor is used (as seen with the T-shirts), theses actions are deplorable. One area in particular with regard to CrossFit is their incorporation of Olympic-style weightlifting (clean/ jerk, and snatch) including overhead pressing. Those that have lots of experience and knowledge with doing and teaching Olympic lifting know how technical they are. Utilizing these lifts in the CrossFit program where different individuals use the same weight across the board and are executed while fatigued is simply unacceptable, not to mention the extreme risk of injury. This is not the correct way to coach, and does not utilize the correct movement patterns and placement of these lifts. Furthermore, using the Olympic lifts in this manner is a true violation of the recommendations for teaching Olympic lifts published by USA Weightlifting (USAW) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

After reviewing and taking a closer look into CrossFit, there are simply too many impediments to this type of training. Unfortunately I cannot recommend Crossfit in general. However, those that choose to engage in these methods, I recommend that you learn and recognize the limitations of it.

  1. Anoop says:

    But they get “results”. Nobody can argue with results can you.

    Great post, Mike!

    • Steve Colescott says:

      I can argue with results. A temporary improvement that causes permanent damage is not a positive. This is where science (which Crossfit dismisses) comes into play.

  2. Pythagoras says:

    Nice article.. All the advanced masters nowdays, think that Crossfit is nothing but a marketing trick.

    Results can be obtained from simple strength training, high/medium interval training, aerobic training if done with a goal and in parallel with a sound nutritional plan.

    Crossfit is a methodological mixer, but who guarantees that this “mix” is a good thing.

    I have heard reports of frequent injuries too.

    The time for a strength/conditioning unified field is not close.

  3. Pythagoras says:

    This previous post is ok: http://www.thestrengthexchange.com/77/

    And don’t forget that many under the influence of AAS can work miracles and produce good results even with boring programs like body part/day.

    • Jon says:

      Thanks for the comments. Yea, I’m aware about the influence of AAS. Working hard, and training hard and eating for your goals should always be at the forefront of everything

  4. james says:

    Sorry but you are (like many others that say the same thing) stating that CrossFit as principle and a program as a whole do not allow scales (adjusting weight, movements, etc) for individuals and EVERYONE that does CrossFit must do the same thing which is completely false. CrossFit doesn’t says everyone have to do “Murph” with a vest on and do all the reps as shown. It’s up to the Trainer/coach to make and implement the correct scales and modifications for each individual. Are there trainers and coaches that are stupid enough to make a decondition person do “Murph” as it is.. sure, and that is the problem. The coach/trainer and not the program. That is true of any fitness program or any profession. There are good ones and there are really bad ones. That doesn’t make the program/principle of CrossFit bad. At our CrossFit gyms, there’s always a scale available and the Coach will instruct certain individuals to do less reps, weight, movements, etc.

  5. james says:

    Also the “uncle rabdo” is not a mascot. It was used to bring awareness to this condition. How many people that is reading your blog knew what Rhabdomyolysis is? I bet 99% of the “personal trainers” our there don’t know what that is. CrossFit was the first to really talk about it and bring awareness to this very dangerous problem.

    • chris says:

      well no kidding CrossFit was the first to talk about Rhabdomylysis because no real trainer or strength coach is dumb enough to put their client in a situation where they can be injured and taken to the emergency room. CrossFit’s ignorance and arrogance will be the death of them.

  6. Brian says:

    Good points James.

    Biggest point is that every type of fitness/strength training out there will have good and bad trainers, gyms and programs. If you take the extreme examples and use them as the “majority” of course you will paint a negative light on them with ease.

    The majority of folks that we hear these types of posts from are either people who don’t know or haven’t done CF before or did when it first became accessible and don’t’ know that; like everything else in this world, CF has evolved from what it was years ago.

    Just try to remember that there are many world-class trainers out there in all areas of fitness, CrossFit included. Don’t be another person with blinders on.

  7. Andrew St John says:

    I’ve been doing crossfit for almost a year. From my own experiences I would guess that you are not writing from personal experience. Most of your statements range from partially correct to absolutely false, based again, on my own experiences and the shared experiences from members of perhaps another 10 affiliates here in the northeast.

  8. Richard says:

    The reason Crossfit seems to get “results” is the fact that the only ones that parade around are the ones who don’t quit. There are many more people who do Crossfit that quit than get results (just like every other fitness program out there). Can you do Crossfit safely? Of course, but that usually happens in gyms that specialize in more than just Crossfit and have legit trainers that don’t get their certification over a weekend.

  9. Michael Miller says:

    Sorry, James, but I think you’re missing the points. “Uncle Rhabdo” was created as mockery of those who claim that Crossfit training can result in this condition. To say that the character is to help bring awareness is disingenuous.

    Secondly, while Crossfit may be scalable the problem is is that you get a peer pressure intensive environment in any type of group training like this. If the Crossfit instructors are not rigorous (and many of them seem not to be) about making sure that work is done at a person’s current fitness level then over-training and other injury are likely to occur.

    Can you honestly tell me that the people on the lower rungs of fitness level in your Crossfit groups are never or hardly ever injured through their efforts to “keep up” with the group?

  10. Khalid says:

    First off let me say that I have been a certified personal trainer and Crossfit Trainer Certified (doesn’t mean shit, but those are my credentials). I have spent seven years in the Army, have self studied in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Crossfit. My real passion is in powerlifting and I have stayed away from Crossfit for some time now. This is not becasue it is dangerous, or a scam (although they do like to charge too much for things at times), but because it just wasn’t for me. Some of you are right in that it does promote injury by being staged in a group setting which adds peer pressure to do the WOD as “prescribed”. This pressure is no different than allowing a young and dumb kid join the local gym and hurt himself trying to do squats too heavy because he doesn’t want to look weak. Just like in chosing a powerlifting or weightlifting gym, you must chose one with a good trainer or you run the risk of injury. I was actually injured more as a young guy training for bodybuilding than I was in Crossfit because I had a really good trainer who made sure that everyone at the gym was encouraging each other and never verbally judging or they would be kicked out. If your technique was off, you would take extra time to practice and build up the weight using proper technique. The one thing I do disagree with is the weightlifting added into the timed WODs. No matter how good you are, your technique will break down and no one stops you when this happens which is horrible. The WODs are also not the only part of what a good gym should be programing either. You should be starting out with stretching and a warm up. Then moving into some type of stregnth training, then some skill work, then the WOD which does not always have a name and can be completely programed by the instructor, and then if you want to work on extra stuff you can. The WODs are randomly put together but the is a method to the madness. Most WODs consist of some type of stregth exercise, gymnastics work, and metabolic conditioning. One exercise should be picked from each of these categories and then you decide how the WOD will be executed and with what weight. You can complete ten reps every minute on the minute of each exercise until you fail to complete all three within the minute or you can complete as many rounds as possible at a perscribed number of reps within 10 minutes. Weights and reps can be scaled and exercises can be traded out for others. Crossfit does make it too easy to become a trainer which also makes it that much more dangerous. they are so set on expanding the company that they are willing to sacrifice safety which is nver good. Please, if your going to do Crossfit then find a good trainer and don’t just look for the cheapest one. I think that if Crossfit fits your lifesyle and goals then go for it, but find a good trainer. Oh, and powerlifters will always eat Crossfitters for breakfast!